Keeping Moral Rights: A Wattpad Contest Controversy

Last week on Twitter, I was contacted by a writer with concerns about the official rules for Wattpad’s Open Novella Contest 2022. Specifically, this clause:

This is incredibly writer-unfriendly. Prize winners must grant rights exclusively, perpetually, and without the option to terminate, and the contest sponsor can use those rights as it chooses, without notifying–or paying–the writer.

Additionally, and most egregiously, winners must waive their moral rights, which include the right of attribution–the right to have your work published with your name–and the right of integrity–the right to have your work published exactly as you wrote it. In other words, winners’ works could be published or adapted in abridged or altered form, without their name or under someone else’s name, and they’d have no right to object–if they knew about it at all.

(This is not illegal, as some outraged people have theorized. It is, however, really unfavorable, and a gigantic red flag wherever you encounter it–which you very well might, because it’s not all that uncommon, even in situations where there’s no obvious benefit to whoever is demanding it. In the USA, moral rights aren’t recognized for writers, but they are important in much of the rest of the world, and most publishing these days is international.)

I tweeted a warning, and also a shout-out to Wattpad:

.@wattpad please consider changing these terrible contest rules for your writing contests. Winners shouldn’t have to grant rights perpetually. They especially shouldn’t have to waive the right to have their stories published under their own names. #WriterBeware #WritingCommunity pic.twitter.com/WXnDA5UwjX

— Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) January 21, 2022

Within a day, Wattpad responded:

The rules now look very different.

I don’t take credit for the change: apparently there was major blowback from Wattpad users. Initial responses on behalf of ONC included some gaslighting (it’s never good when the answer to your concerns about legal language is “don’t worry about it”):

But the ONC team apparently realized that wasn’t going to fly.

Unanswered questions remain, such as why those rules were posted to begin with. Previous Open Novella Contests, which are organized not by Wattpad itself, but by Wattpad Ambassadors (volunteers who work on Wattpad’s behalf), didn’t include them. Additionally, the rules originally identified Wattpad as a contest sponsor–which again was different from previous ONCs:

That preamble is gone, along with the rest of the legalese, including the clause highlighted at the beginning of this post.

The legalese itself is not an isolated instance, however. In just an hour or so of searching, I was able to find the same or similar language, including the moral rights waiver, on another Ambassador-organized contest–the Ambys 2021–and on four Wattpad-sponsored contests conducted in conjunction with big companies or brands–the Starface Writing Contest (Starface skin care brand), the Looking For Alaska contest (Hulu), the EyesLipsFierce Write-a-thon (e.l.f. Cosmetics), and the The Sun is Also a Star contest (Warner Bros.).

Wattpad does seem to be responsive to the criticism it has received. Some Wattpad writers have been sent a survey asking for their input about about contest rules language. Also, last week Wattpad reached out to me.

In a video call with Kiel Hume, Head of International PR and Communications for Wattpad, and Lauren Hopkinson, Wattpad Communications Lead, I shared my concerns about overly restrictive contest rules language, particularly perpetual rights grants and moral rights waivers. Kiel acknowledged that the original rules for ONC 2022 were overreach, and said that going forward, such language will not appear on any user-organized contest, including those organized by Wattpad Ambassadors.

For branded Wattpad-sponsored contests, the considerations are different, since the brand partners have their own requirements (primarily, I would guess, unfettered use of winners’ IP–hence the moral rights question). Here too, though, Kiel told me that Wattpad’s legal team is evaluating how to make the language less stringent. I suggested that, at a minimum, they consider eliminating the perpetuity requirement and replacing it with a time-limited grant of rights–for instance, three years–after which all rights, including moral rights, would return to the author. That’s still not a contest I’d advise anyone to enter–but it would at least make things somewhat more favorable for writers who decide that the prize is worth potentially losing control of their work.

Kiel promised to share my comments with the legal team. I appreciated being able to share my views, and I did get the sense that the powers that be at Wattpad are taking these issues seriously. However, there’s many a slip ‘twixt video call and legal. I’ve asked Wattpad to keep me posted.

Writers have to make their own decisions, and different things are important to different people. What’s most important–in all situations, not just contests–is that writers fully understand the terms and rules to which they are agreeing. Contest legalese may make your eyes glaze over, but you owe it to yourself not just to carefully read it, but to fully comprehend what it could mean for you and your work: to know exactly what you may–or may not–be giving up.

Let that understanding, and not a shiny prize or the promise of recognition or exposure, be the main guide in your decision.

UPDATE 2/25/22: The moral rights waiver is still included in the guidelines for Wattpad’s most recent branded contest. So no change so far.

 

7 Comments

  1. I see people every day that have no clue what rights they’re signing away, from contests to sites like Wattpad, and most don’t care. They want to be “published”, they want readers. Wattpad can run their rules by anyone on that site, and I’d bet maybe 80% wouldn’t understand it.

    I’m skeptical of all these things, because I just don’t trust people to not take advantage of me. I passed on a contest to write Star Trek (which I love, and used to write fan fiction for) because of the rights grab. And it’s not just writing, several years ago a craft magazine had a Halloween costume contest. It had entrants giving up every single right to their work, for nothing. The prize was I think just getting the costume featured in an article.

    Sigh. Always someone out there willing to take our hard work and profit from us.

  2. Why do most writing companies try to take writer’s right?
    Aren’t there author-friendly companies?
    I’ve read your other post about emp and and unfortunately I fell for and. If I just finished the book that I contracted and do not make another book for them, will I be questioned?
    I have so much to ask now but my emotions are everywhere.
    Hope to get a reply from you, thanks in advance.

    1. Any publisher or publishing platform needs to make at least some claim on writers’ rights in order to legally be able to publish. The question is, is that claim fair, or is it exploitative? That’s what many of my posts examine.

      There are many publishers and publishing platforms that offer fair contracts. Unfortunately companies like EMP Entertainment aren’t among them. Exploitative contracts seem to be extremely common in the serial novel app space.

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